By guest contributor and TEDMED speaker Vanessa Ruiz
When we talk about the future of medical illustration and learning anatomy, it’s often tied to advances in technology. What advances in technology will allow students to learn anatomy faster, allow them to memorize terms more efficiently, or provide better methods for them to interact with anatomy without actually touching a cadaver? But if you look at all of the resulting technologies, such as 3D anatomy apps, augmented reality organs, or virtual reality cadavers, the foundation still lies within an established ideal of anatomical representation. We’ve simply moved the same anatomical imagery from a textbook page to a screen. But instead of trying to change the medium by which we learn to technology, why not change the mindset of the approach to an artistic one, to engage a broader audience? Why shouldn’t the public, rather than just medical professionals, have access to learning anatomy?
Nearly 10 years ago it was difficult to find many artists featuring anatomy as a subject in their artwork. And I’m not referring to “the figure” as it is studied in art. I’m talking about the muscles, skeleton and viscera— what lies beneath the skin. Today the acceptance of anatomical art in pop culture is palpable. It’s pulsing in the trends of film, street art, advertising, interior design, and even fashion. A quick web search for “anatomical heart necklace” yields an overwhelming amount of resulting iterations. What is fascinating is that this anatomical art movement has risen exponentially alongside the rather stagnant practice of anatomy education. With all of the advances in medicine, the time and resources allocated to teach anatomy to medical students is diminishing. This is why students often turn to technology such as anatomy apps to supplement their learning.
But, as the boundary between science and art blurs, it is no longer sufficient to talk about either on their own. We need to see how each informs the other. This crossover between medical illustration, art, and anatomy learning is beginning to take place. We’ve gone beyond the “Anatomy Coloring Book.”
The dramatic anatomical body paintings by medical artist Danny Quirk, of Immaculate Dissection, are now used to teach anatomy to anyone from physical therapists to athletic trainers to bodywork practitioners; the technique has been so popular that it’s been replicated in anatomy classes around the world.
Sculpting anatomy by hand from the skeleton outward has become a means for not only artists to learn anatomy, but for medical students as well. This is where the distinction between viewing a body in 3D versus tangibly building a body becomes clear; building by hand requires spatial knowledge and memory– tying doing with learning instead of looking and memorizing.
The truest delivery of anatomy to the public takes the form of street art. A growing number of artists are vibrantly broadcasting anatomy on the streets in a vast array of styles. Street artists are pushing their work to be site specific and interactive.
Imagine the immersive experience of learning anatomy by walking through rooms of an abandoned building. As dynamic as Achilles‘ warehouse anatomy above, this piece by Croatian street artist Lanoc shows an anatomical heart pumping blood through industrial air ducts. It is site-specific street art, pulsing with life.
Austrian street artist, Nychos, is famous for his explosive views of anatomy. He recently started a series of anatomical charts using his edgy, hard metal style.
While the public is embracing anatomical art, there are many medical professionals that still see medicine and art as two separate subjects. A radiologist approached me after my TEDMED talk and excitedly told me that she creates art from X-rays. When I asked her to see it she said that she never shares it because she doesn’t think it is special or it might be looked down upon by her peers. I encourage artistic expression in medical professionals because it is natural and deeply tied to medicine.
It can be argued that there are only so many ways to represent anatomy, but I counter that by all the astounding ways that artists are able to portray anatomy in their work. Artists have broken anatomy out of the confines of the medical world and are now beginning to reintroduce it back in with a whole new approach and style. The future of medical illustration doesn’t depend solely on advances in technology; it begs to be pushed further by artists. I feel compelled to showcase and catalog contemporary anatomical art, as well as promote the artists and medical illustrators that are pushing the boundaries of anatomical visualization. Because one day, they will be part of the history that leads to something greater– when the public will fully appreciate and understand its own anatomy.
Watch anatomical artist and curator Vanessa Ruiz’s TEDMED talk, in which she shares how she fulfilled her dream to take anatomy to the streets, and make medical illustration– and the resulting public knowledge of the human body– intersect with contemporary art. Check out her website, streetanatomy.com, which showcases human anatomy in art, design and pop culture.